Who the hell were the wobblies?
Wobblies was (is) a name applied to a kind of world-wide trades union, founded in 1905, called the Industrial Workers of the World. The story goes that the name Wobblies was applied accidentally by Chinese IWW members who could not pronounce the letter ‘W’ properly. Their version of WW was wobblyou, wobblyou – hence ‘Wobblies’. Often termed a Marxist outfit, the IWW believed that industrial workers should take over the means of production. Once in charge of production, the workers would then enjoy some kind of joyous panacea, and share in the profits.
Mabel comes into this, because of her well-known, socialist , almost communistic, views. How she came to hold these views is open to question, but she was certainly, along with Mack Sennett, a supporter of the Wobblies. The evidence can be seen in some of Mabel’s films, where the letters ‘I W W ’ (sometimes ‘W W I’) are scrawled on walls and / or sheds e.g. The Fatal Mallet (1914). When the letter ‘I’ is in the wrong position, staunch followers would still recognize the sign, and, let’s be honest, most of Sennett’s audiences were blue collar industrial workers of some kind. We must admit that the sign could not have been scrawled without Sennett’s approval. Here we have a neat paradox, for Sennett was surely a money-grabbing capitalist of the kind detested by Marx and, indeed, Dickens (Mack’s studio was truly Dickensian). Up to a point this was true, but we must remember that Sennett was also, once, an iron-worker, slaving in the putrid heat of a metal factory, way out east.
No workers were more prone to industrial agitation than the iron-workers, and the young Sennett must have picked up some socialist ideals from the men allied to the emerging trades unions. Once ensconced in the theatrical ghettos of New York’s Bowery, he seems to have developed some deep resentment towards the ‘fat cats’ operating in the performing industries (calling them ‘arts’ would do the ‘real’ arts a great injustice). He probably also built up some animosity for the authorities that hauled him before a judge on a couple of occasions, for appearing in obscene productions.
Mrs Griffith was adamant in her book that Sennett was a difficult guy to get along with, as he always suspected that the Biograph autocrats were having him over. Only one person ever had anything to do with Mack, and that was a young-looking 17 year-old called Mabel Normand. The pair became bonded in some way, and it seems Mabel leaned on Mack’s more experienced shoulders. Much of what Mabel said and did at Biograph and Keystone appears to be based on the thoughts and actions of ‘Chairman’ Mack Sennett. Although Mabel was in awe of Sennett (according to Adela Rogers St. Johns) she undoubtedly had socialist tendencies before she met ’The King’. Mabel had always wandered the streets of New York’s East Side, and must have been affected by the poverty she saw. Furthermore, it has been said that she’d slaved in a factory, where she contracted TB, before getting into modelling.
Again, it is Adela Rogers St. Johns that informs us. However, we know that Mabel was something of a ‘naughty girl’, and this behavior might be tied into the accepted view that Mabel attended a Catholic convent school. She might not have been there for purely educational purposes, but more for reason of reform. In this case, she might have been put to work in what was known as a Mary Magdalene laundry. These places were truly horrific sweatshops, but it is wrong to imagine they were intended for incorrigible prostitutes. The majority of the girls had merely got beyond the control of their parents, and needed ‘rectification’. It does appear that Mabel was either expelled from public school on Staten Island, or refused to attend the establishment. If Mabel was at a convent, then we need look no further for the source of her irreverence for ‘superiors’, her foul language, and, perhaps, her socialist bent (all of these she might have acquired from the other, even more incorrigible, convent girls).
The Keystone Agitator.
Mabel was known as many things Star-of-Stars, Queen of Comedy, Madcap Mabel and so on, but Mack Sennett tells us that she was also a staunch defender of worker’s rights. The rights of Keystone workers, that is. Of course, Mabel’s privileged position at the studio enabled her to have it out with the boss, if she felt he’d infringed worker’s rights. One old carpenter is recorded as having been off work for many weeks, after falling from a stage roof he’d been working on. Mabel was furious that Mack had not been to see the man, and had stopped his pay. She tore into ‘The King’ in a blind rage, then went round to the carpenter’s house, and paid him his missing wages from her own money. Mabel broke down later, when she received a pillowcase from the man’s aging wife, which she’d embroidered with her own arthritic hands. Mack always dreaded hearing a furor outside his office, for he knew it was Mabel on the warpath, probably leading some workers’ deputation or other. Whenever she thought Mack was short-changing Charlie Chaplin on his pay, she’d brow-beat him into giving Charlie a pay rise. Outside of Keystone Mabel was known for her socialist views. She would often express those views in the media, and had even thought of running for mayor, on a suffrage ticket.
Charlie Chaplin fell into a maelstrom of socialist, anti-establishment fervor when he entered Keystone. At the time, even the boss held radical views, so it is likely that Chaplin’s own views were strengthened by this environment. Forty years later, Mack was to distance himself from Charlie, by saying in his autobiography “I know nothing about Chaplin’s politics.” Minta Arbuckle Durfee (one-time Chaplin leading lady) was in no doubt Chaplin was a ‘dirty commie’. However, by the time she said this (1970s) she was a sad old woman, who relied on half-remembered newspaper reports rather, than her own dimly-recalled experience, and seemed totally unaware that Chaplin was, at that very moment, being welcomed back into the fold, and given an Oscar.
Mack Sennett: Socialist or evil capitalist?
There is no doubt that Sennett had socialist views, even after he created Keystone. At some point these views were put on the back burner, and he preferred to be seen as an example of capitalistic endeavor. It is no surprise that this occurred around 1917, when two things had happened. Firstly, the U.S. entered the Great War, which necessitated everyone coming together. Secondly, in this year, The Russian Revolution took place. Both of these things affected the Wobblies, and their support began to somewhat bleed away. It was no longer O.K. to knock the establishment, and even that consummate non-active communist, Chaplin, had to drop his idealism for the moment, and go on a War Bond selling tour with Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks. Mabel did the same, but her fear of crowds meant that she sold ‘For a Kiss’ War Bonds in various theaters. The U.S. national office of the IWW was raided by Government agents in September 1917, and charges of sedition were laid against the organization.
There is one group that Sennett liked to ridicule, and that was the Freemasons. Their associates, The Shriners, have appeared marching proudly in the Keystone films. In his autobiography, Mack tells of upsetting a Shriners’ march in L.A., using an ‘impoverished’ Mabel as the stooge. Nonetheless, Sennett seems to have later become a Freemason. By disguising and hiding himself from the establishment, Sennett managed to remain beyond reproach, apart from an Income Tax investigation in the mid-1950s. Chaplin was hounded by the authorities for years, and had a million-dollar tax demand slapped on him in 1929. In the late 40s, his Wobbly past caught up with him, and he was exiled from the U.S. for ‘un-American activity’. As for Mabel, had she lived, she would eventually have been caught out on some half-baked ‘un-American’ charge, but not before, perhaps, fighting against Franco’s Fascist forces in Spain. It is worth noting that Sennett terms himself ‘a competitive socialist’ in his autobiograhy.
Whatever Happened to The Wobblies?
The fact is that nothing happened to them. Their fortunes waxed and waned down the years, but they never went away. In the last few days they have hit the headlines, due to an I.W.W member, Anna Campbell, being killed in Afrin, Syria. In the U.S. they have just settled a law suit against Ellen’s Stardust Diner for half-a-million dollars. Curiously, with the rise of Trump, their U.S. membership has increased exponentially. Now, isn’t that strange?